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ICE Detainee Who Sued His Jailers Was Swiftly Deported. Now He's Missing
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=54521"><span class="small">Matt Katz, Gothamist</span></a>   
Saturday, 30 May 2020 08:20

Katz writes: "On May 15th, an undocumented Mexican immigrant locked up in a private New Jersey jail plagued by COVID-19 filed a class-action lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its contractor, CoreCivic, arguing that all 114 detainees held there were in mortal danger unless immediately freed."

Men sit in the sun in the health ward at an immigrant detention center. (photo: Gregory Bull/AP)
Men sit in the sun in the health ward at an immigrant detention center. (photo: Gregory Bull/AP)


ICE Detainee Who Sued His Jailers Was Swiftly Deported. Now He's Missing

By Matt Katz, Gothamist

30 May 20

 

n May 15th, an undocumented Mexican immigrant locked up in a private New Jersey jail plagued by COVID-19 filed a class-action lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its contractor, CoreCivic, arguing that all 114 detainees held there were in mortal danger unless immediately freed.

Four days later, without advance notice to the coalition of attorneys representing him, the 30-year-old laborer was put on a morning flight out of Newark Liberty International Airport to Laredo, Texas. At 5:44 pm that day, a federal judge intervened, ordering a stop to his deportation due to his pending legal claims seeking permission to stay in the United States.

Fifty-eight minutes later, Hector Garcia Mendoza was nonetheless escorted across the border. Garcia Mendoza’s attorneys say Mexican immigration authorities told them he was dropped off in the notoriously dangerous town of Nuevo Loredo, Mexico, where kidnappings are common.

Now, a week-and-a-half later, Garcia Mendoza is effectively missing. He has not called his family in either the United States nor Mexico. Lawyers have contacted shelters in Mexico and immigrant advocacy groups in Texas, but no one has seen him. Eighteen members of Congress are describing the expedited efforts to get Garcia Mendoza out of the country as “seemingly deliberate.”

“There’s a really serious concern that he could’ve been kidnapped by now,” said one of his attorneys, Ilana Herr, of the American Friends Service Committee in New Jersey.

Because he had been living in the United States for about 10 years, kidnappers might falsely believe Garcia Mendoza has access to money, according to a relative who didn’t want her name used because she fears retaliation due to her own immigration status. The relative has called hospitals, the Red Cross, and police in Mexico looking for him. She doesn’t believe he is carrying money or a cell phone.

“In Mexico, at the border, anything could happen—anything,” she said. “I just want to hear his voice say, ‘Hey Negrita’—he used to call me Negrita—‘Hey Negrita, I’m okay.’”

This relative also worries about Garcia Mendoza’s health. In the days leading up to his deportation, Garcia Mendoza complained to his attorney that he suffered from shortness of breath and chest pain, but did not receive adequate medical treatment inside the detention center. It’s unknown if he has COVID-19, but he has suffered from asthma since he was a boy, and the Elizabeth Contract Detention Center where he was held has at least 18 cases of coronavirus among its detainees, one of the worst breakouts in ICE detention nationwide. The day before Garcia Mendoza filed suit, a CoreCivic corrections officer there died of the disease.

Nationwide, 1,327 ICE detainees are positive for the virus, representing more than half of those tested. Scores of immigrants who contracted coronavirus in ICE detention have been deported, effectively exporting the disease to other countries.

In the class-action lawsuit filed with three other named plaintiffs, Garcia Mendoza described the converted warehouse where he was held as “filthy” and lacking cleaning supplies, PPE, and sufficient food. He said he washed his hands just with hot water because there wasn’t enough soap. The dorms are cramped, with just a few feet separating men eating and sleeping, and do not allow for social distancing.

A spokesperson for CoreCivic defended its care of detainees but said it does not comment on lawsuits.

Attorneys said his deportation occurred in an extraordinarily expeditious manner, raising suspicions that he was removed from the country as an intimidation and retaliation tactic by ICE. The class-action lawsuit he led was filed by a group of attorneys from the Immigrant Defense Project, American Friends Service Committee, and New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, and was far wider in scope than dozens of others filed during the coronavirus crisis because it demanded every detainees’ release.

“If he got deported a few days after the lawsuit was signed, what else can you think?” asked his relative.

ICE’s field office in Newark said in a statement that his deportation had “no connection to lawsuit.” Contrary to the timeline laid out by his attorneys about when the federal judge intervened in the case, ICE said: “There was no judicial impediment in place when detainee was removed.”

In court papers, the agency said he both waived his right to an attorney and his right to an appeal at his most recent deportation hearing on May 4. But his attorneys said that at the time of his court appearance, Garcia Mendoza could not find an attorney and didn’t realize what he was agreeing to. Unlike those charged with crimes, immigrants in civil deportation proceedings lack a constitutional right to an attorney. And unlike detained immigrants from New York, not all of those in New Jersey get a government-funded lawyer.

At the hearing, Garcia Mendoza’s translator was on the phone, and he had trouble hearing the Spanish translation, his attorneys say. He suffered a head injury after an assault several years ago in Freehold, NJ, where he lived, and lost hearing in one ear. His attorneys argued that the assault made him eligible for a U-Visa, given to immigrant victims of crime.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, ICE shut down access to the detention center’s law library and a hotline to First Friends of New York and New Jersey, an advocacy group. Lawyers say that further limited Garcia Mendoza’s ability to fight his case.

A motion to force ICE to find Garcia Mendoza and return him to the United States was rejected by a federal judge this week. Attorneys argued that ICE violated a court order temporarily blocking the deportation, and they are considering an appeal.

Garcia Mendoza was born on July 4th, 1991, in Oaxaca. He was abandoned by his mother shortly after birth and his father was largely absent, so he was raised by extended family, according to his relative. As a child he was a bit hyperactive, and he didn’t get good grades, but he had a generous spirit, the relative said.

Garcia Mendoza entered the country without a valid visa about a decade ago in order to work. He settled in a Mexican enclave in Freehold, NJ, where there is a large community of Mexicans from Oaxaca. He worked in construction and landscaping, shared an apartment with friends, and attended the local Catholic church.

How Garcia Mendoza ended up in ICE custody is of concern to his attorneys. He was arrested in March for stealing a metal pipe in order to sell it to a scrapyard, and for lying about his identity during a prior encounter with police, according to Freehold Borough Police Captain Ronnie Steppat.

The charges did not warrant a trip to the county jail, but did lead to his detention and an order of deportation by ICE. That’s because when Garcia Mendoza left the police station, ICE agents were waiting for him in the parking lot. A state Attorney General directive forbids local police from tipping ICE off when undocumented immigrants are charged with low-level crimes.

“We did not call ICE on this guy,” Steppat said. “If he was picked up in our parking lot I have no idea how they got there.”

Immigration activists say ICE agents are known to lurk around town, and the undocumented population fears the local police. “We heard over the years the Freehold Police have a history of disbursing immigrant workers at the job-seeking sites, and doesn’t have a trusted relationship with the immigrant community there,” said Chia-Chia Wang, advocacy director for American Friends Service Committee in New Jersey.

After Garcia Mendoza’s deportation, an overnight vigil was held at the Elizabeth detention center, before it was broken up by police, and a rally was held in Nuevo Laredo. Eighteen Democratic congressional representatives also wrote a letter to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security. “We are alarmed by ICE’s seemingly deliberate actions to expedite Mr. García Mendoza’s removal despite ongoing legal proceedings and the apparent violation of Mr. García Mendoza’s right to due process,” the letter said.

Meanwhile, his relative is waiting by the phone. “I won’t go anywhere. I will stay here waiting for his call,” she said.

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